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Johnathan Rice Talks New Album ‘Good Graces,’ Writing Healing Music + the Future of Jenny and Johnny

Charley Gallay, Getty Images

Throughout his career, singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice has filled many roles. He’s an accomplished solo artist and one-half of the alt-country duo Jenny and Johnny — the other half being girlfriend and former Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis — and he’s collaborated with a laundry list notable musicians, among them Elvis Costello, whose 2008 album ‘Momofuku’ he appears on on. Rice even channeled a young Roy Orbison in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic ‘Walk the Line.’

But Rice’s third solo album, ‘Good Graces,’ finds the singer standing firmly on his own once more — save for a few key collaborations from the likes of Lewis, the Watson Twins and longboard surfer Chad Marshall.

‘Graces’ landed in September, three years after Jenny and Johnny’s 2010 debut, ‘I’m Having Fun Now.’ The new album is anchored by Rice’s signature rustic vocals, and it once again showcases his songwriting prowess, but it also finds Rice bringing his typically dark ruminations into lighter territory. The singer attributes the shift to his desire to write music that heals those around him, rather than perpetuating the troubled times that surrounded the album’s creation. To that end, ‘Graces’ offers startlingly sincere ballads (‘My Heart Belongs to You’), freewheeling romps (‘Lou Rider’) and no shortage of West Coast sunshine in its harmonies and twang.

We caught up with Rice mid-tour to chat about ‘Good Graces,’ writing healing music, the songs he and Lewis penned for the upcoming Anne Hathaway/Johnny Flynn film ‘Song One’ and the future of Jenny and Johnny.

You wanted ‘Good Graces’ to be a “healing” album, and it does have this calming, easy feeling to it. Could you expand on what your approach was in achieving that healing sound?

First and foremost, it’s just the intention of the songs I was writing and the production that I gave them. I guess unwittingly, the majority of my songs were always coming from a place of trying to be really cutting in my words.

With ‘My Heart Belongs to You,’ you’ve said writing a genuine love song was one of the more challenging things you’ve done, musically. Why do you think that is? 

You have to gather up a lot of courage to tell someone you love them, so I think the same goes for writing a song. It can be a little daunting [expressing] love in a song or being completely honest about it.

You have some collaborations on this album, but how was it transitioning from an entire album collaboration, with Jenny and Johnny, back to your solo work?

There could’ve been another Jenny and Johnny album right on the heels of ‘I’m Having Fun Now,’ which was our first one, but instead of putting the songs that we were writing together into an album, we kind of gave them to this film called ‘Song One.’ You know, it’s not hard and fast like that, but a lot of the collaborative songs we wrote went into that film, which has yet to come out, but it’ll come out at some point in 2014. That kind of left me with an urge to write a bunch of songs by myself. I think a lot of artists are that way, at least I’m that way, where if I do one project, I kind of have an urge to change it up for the next one. So because the Jenny and Johnny thing was so collaborative — lyrically, vocally, the touring; everything about it was collaborative — I went to New York to write ‘Good Graces’ almost in its entirety. I wrote it by myself.

I understand that you kind of had to step out of your skin a little bit to score ‘Song One,’ so in the same vein, how is it transitioning from writing your own music or even with Jenny and Johnny, to writing music to fill the roles of these characters?

It’s refreshing, because the characters we were writing for in the film, they have their own back stories that are not our own, and they have places that they’re from and relationships we don’t have, so it was fun to work within those parameters and not necessarily just write about ourselves, which is what we spend all of our time doing. But it was fun — we were just trying to create their personalities, ‘cause we’re writing characters [who] are songwriters themselves. So what makes this guy? What makes his sound unique? There’s some resemblance to us for obvious reasons, but he’s his own guy as well.

So it’s a musical?

Right, of sorts. I mean, it’s not a musical like ‘The Pajama Game,’ where people spontaneously burst into song, but music is a key component. There’s a lot of performance in the film, but more performance in a real context, like someone being on stage or playing for some people in a room or something like that. The songs do tell a story alongside the script. They’re kind of their own form of dialogue, the way the characters communicate.

Can we expect to hear more from Jenny and Johnny or was that kind of a one-off thing?

I don’t know. I don’t shut the door on any project I’m involved in, but I think at the moment I’m very focused on touring this record, and I haven’t really begun to write a new batch of songs, so I’ll have to see where the new batch goes. And Jenny is hard at work on a solo record as well. Maybe.

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